Our stereotypical picture of the alpha-male leader — the hero who unilaterally directs his troops to victory — has become obsolete. This model of leadership no longer works in today’s culture of diversity, inclusion and change.
Most likely, without some real adaptation in style, Vince Lombardi would not have succeeded in today’s NFL. Of course, being the great coach he was, and because winning was everything to him, he probably would have made the necessary adjustments for the sake of the W. For others, however, as they say of some coaches, the game has passed them by. What they are really saying, however, is that the culture has passed them by and they have failed to adapt to the changes in society. Today’s players (employees) require coaches (leaders) who both understand them and are willing to lead them within the confines of their cultural needs. This is why Phil Jackson was able to mold multiple-championship teams in both Chicago and Los Angeles. It wasn’t just talent he had on his teams that made his successful; it was his ability to manage the culture of his players — many of them with very inflated egos.
Is today’s leadership game passing you by? If so, you may be experiencing some difficulty in maintaining a happy and stable workforce. It’s called turnover. You may have difficulty in attracting or recruiting quality people to your organization. You may have trouble inspiring people in the direction you want to move things. If any of these things are true, are you willing to consider some halftime adjustments?
You see, leadership in today’s world is cultural in nature. Let’s call it cultural leadership. The simple truth is we cannot successfully lead people who we do not understand. In today’s work environment, employees are not tools to use, they are people to be shaped. Cultural leaders understand that their job is to mold their people into more successful and effective human beings, not just get the job done at the expense of human capital. If I understand you, if I can to some degree get into your heart and head, I can more easily lead you. In other words, the deeper my understanding, the better I can lead.
Many roofing contractors in the United States employ Hispanic workers. Perhaps, as you read this, you immediately think of an employee at your company. My question to you if you employ Hispanics is this: Do you deeply understand the Hispanic people and culture? Do you? I’m not talking about an Hispanic superintendent or supervisor you lean on for advice. Do you truly understand the Hispanic people and culture? If not, you simply cannot lead them at the highest levels. At the very least, you are overly dependent on another person who may or may not always give you the best advice, or have your best interest in mind.
Here’s an example of leadership gone awry from a cultural perspective. Have you ever asked a Hispanic employee to do something and had them tell you “yes sir,” only to return later and find out that what you asked them to do either didn’t get done the way you wanted, or they did something entirely different? Why does this happen? Is this because Hispanics don’t care or are incapable of understanding? Of course not. This happens because in the Hispanic culture, it’s highly unusual and unacceptable for a worker to challenge the boss, tell him no, or admit he doesn’t understand something. You just say “yes” and then try to make the best of it. It’s a top-down arrangement in Latin America. If you don’t understand this type of thing, it affects your ability to lead.
Confronted with this situation, many leaders simply scratch their heads and blame it on the inability of the Hispanic person to understand. Would this be a correct judgment? No. The reality is that the problem lies in the leader’s own inability to communicate with the Hispanic person who is under their influence. It is always the leader’s responsibility to understand how to communicate with their people. You hired them, so ultimately it is 100 percent your responsibility. As they say, “The buck stops here.”
Here’s another example. A few months ago I was doing executive coaching for some leaders in a well-known roofing company. One of the concerns they expressed was that their Hispanic workers would put soiled toilet paper in the trash can after using it rather than in the toilet. If I remember the description correctly, they said it was “gross” and “inconsiderate.” They didn’t understand that in many places in Latin America plumbing is not highly functional and people are taught to not put paper in the toilet, but rather in the trash can. So, what seemed “gross” and “inconsiderate” to the leaders of this company made perfect sense to the people doing it. By the way, just to be clear, and in deference to my Latino brothers who might read this, not all places in Latin America have poor plumbing, nor do all Hispanics put used toilet paper in trash cans rather than the toilets. God knows, I don’t want to stereotype an entire culture with a toilet paper stigma. That being said, the point stands about making judgment without understanding.
Only a true cultural leader with a deep understanding of culture will capture such things. Cultural leadership is all about depth. Recently we went through a re-branding of our logo and tag line at Bilingual America. The tag line we chose among many suggested was “Communicate Deeply.” Those two words sum it up. Communicate Deeply. Everything else is shallow. Or, as Phil Jackson said in an interview, quoting from Plato’s Ancient Greek work, The Phaedrus, “Wisdom is always an overmatch for strength.” Imagine a basketball jock with an understanding of ancient Greek wisdom and culture! No wonder he won more NBA championships (11) than any other coach in history.
In the next article of this three-part series on cultural leadership, we’re going to discuss exactly what it means to communicate deeply. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider that the more deeply you understand and respect the unique cultural motivators of your employees and co-workers, the more effective you will be as a leader.